What am I going to do now? Newly widowed at just fifty years old, that’s the question I was facing. I decided to put it on hold, though, after receiving a surprise check from my husband’s former employer. Before doing anything else, I wanted to fulfill my lifetime dream of visiting the land where Jesus lived.
I was in Jerusalem, not thinking about my future, when God began unfolding it anyway. It happened through a conversation that helped give my life an unexpected new direction—a calling to become an ambassador of Jesus’ gift of peace. It seems so right that this inner journey started just a few miles from the field where shepherds once heard angels sing of “peace on earth.”
The conversation opened with a simple, “How are you feeling?” The question came from a priest I hadn’t expected to see in Jerusalem. He had advised me during a difficult period in my life.
“I’m fine!” I said, delighted that our paths had crossed once again.
“No, Shirley,” Fr. Francis persisted. “I remember what you shared with me last time we talked. So I want to know how you’re feeling.”
I suddenly realized that I had no idea. “Go figure it out,” he said. “Then give me a call.”
A Peeled Orange. That night, before a crucifix, I asked Jesus to tell me how I felt. I hadn’t considered the question for more than seven years— not since my husband had become an invalid following unsuccessful heart surgery. Caring for him and for our six children, as well as being the sole wage earner, hadn’t left the time or the energy for doing anything beyond what I needed to do.
Still, I loved being a wife and mother—it was what I had wanted to do ever since I was a little girl. And my work as parish religious education director had brought me great joy. Now all that had come to an end. I was a widow, with no children left at home. I no longer had a job either, having left it to care for my husband in his final months.
As all of this hit me, I started to cry. Then I had a mental image of an orange scored in quarters, with the peel stripped down to reveal the white membrane. That’s how I felt: bland, vulnerable, colorless— stripped of my roles as wife, mother, homemaker, and catechist.
“I’ve lost my identity,” I reported back to Fr. Francis.
“Oh, you are so blessed!” he said.
“Blessed?” Had I heard him right?
“Shirley, you are in a situation that many people would envy,” he explained. “You have an opportunity to experience your true identity as a child of God, with no supporting role. When that identity is enough for you, you will know true freedom.”
A Blank Check. I returned home with a lot to think about. And right away, there were decisions to make because I received three job offers and an invitation to consider marriage with a fine Catholic widower. What did God want?
To find out, I decided to take an eight-day Jesuit discernment retreat. The setting was beautiful. I loved having time for prayer, Scripture, journaling, and walking the trails. But by day six, I still hadn’t heard anything from the Lord.
Day eight came. With a heavy heart, I packed up the car and went to my final session with the retreat director. “What now?” I asked him tearfully. He was encouraging me to trust and pray, when I finally heard the still, small voice of God: The next thing Fr. Bill says is my word for you. I was all attention as the priest continued. “God will bless whatever you decide, but I believe that he is asking you to give him a blank check.”
A blank check—I knew what that meant. Total surrender! Never mind the four options I was considering. Would I do anything God wanted? For years I had told him, “Not my will, but yours.” But now, realizing how many things I didn’t want to do, I was scared.
It took seven months, but finally I was ready to enter into the freedom of simply letting God lead. Alone in church one morning after Mass, I prostrated myself before the tabernacle and signed that blank check. Now it was up to God to fill it out.
A Place for Prayer. I began to sense that God wanted me to do something that would help people get closer to him. Now here was something I felt passionate about! Ever since my teenage years, when I fell in love with Jesus and was baptized into the Catholic Church, I had wanted to see more people get excited about their faith. And in my religious education classes, I had seen hearts set on fire with the love of God.
So where was God leading? Family and friends joined me in praying about this, and finally the word came: Create an environment where my people can come and be alone with me. Immediately, I thought about building hermitages where people could experience the freedom of unstructured, solitary time with God.
How a middle-aged widow with no money or business expertise managed to open a retreat center that now serves a thousand guests a year is a story of grace upon grace. It took the support of my family, my pastor, my bishop, and many friends. There were miracles, with God providing everything we needed, from land to builders to a board of directors. There were obstacles—many exercises in remembering to seek God’s approval above all.
In 1988, after eight years of preparation, we opened our retreat center with three hermitages—simple, comfortable prayer cabins, where guests can slow down and listen to God. Because this is a place for receiving his peace and then bringing it to others, we called it Pacem in Terris.
God’s Own Guests. The people who come to Pacem in Terris are an interesting mix. Every year, about half are first-time visitors. A third are lay men and women; another third are in ministry as pastors, priests, missionaries; another third are young people, mainly college students.
Having envisioned Pacem as a place of prayer for Catholics, I was distressed, at first, that two-thirds of our guests are from other churches— Baptist, Lutheran, Assemblies of God, and others. Then I understood that God was sending them. Every evening, when guests can choose to come for dinner at the main house, I’m privileged to see these Christians sitting together around the table. They’re sharing about God, about prayer, about their lives—discovering one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. And I know that the Holy Spirit is at work, building unity and healing hearts.
For every guest, the gift of the hermitage is freedom to be more attentive to God than is usually possible. And God, who is never outdone in generosity, pours out his gifts in ways that are tailor-made to each individual.
I think of three corporate executives who put their smartphones and busy lives aside for two days of hermitage solitude. Each one received his own unique gift, something he wasn’t expecting—healing for a relationship, wisdom for a financial matter, clarity about how to organize something. Sharing his story with me afterwards, each man was almost tearful, so moved by God’s goodness.
I’m moved, too, when I look back on all that God has done—not only for the thirteen thousand guests who have come to Pacem in Terris, but for me. He showed me his love, led me into his freedom, and gave me a new calling just when it felt like my life was over. What a privilege it is to see his Spirit at work in this place of peace! n
Pacem in Terris (www.paceminterris.org), now with sixteen hermitages on 240 wooded acres, is forty miles north of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Do you have a story about how God has worked in your life? Send it to us at [email protected]